Everywhere you go in and around Detroit this week, you hear talk about the death of a true media icon- Bill Bonds, the news anchor at undisputed #1 WXYZ-TV from the ’70s through the early ’90s. He was a bona fide TV star and attracted a now unfathomably huge audience of both fans and what would now be called “haters.” As one of his former producers once told me, “With Bill, we could have run test patterns and Bonanza reruns in between newscasts and still been #1.”
I never worked with Bonds or competed directly against him, but I ended up in his Detroit News obituary over the weekend because of a little insight I shared with a reporter. I remarked that “Detroit really became the competitive news market it is today after he left Channel 7.”
While I know that statement to be absolutely true, I decided to do some digging about the context of his departure, as I was working in TV outside of the market at the time. Sure enough, it was the first in a series of coincidental events over just six months that changed the Detroit media market forever.
WXYZ-TV fired Bill Bonds on January 11, 1995 after a series of alcohol-related issues. At the time, the station’s general manager told Crain’s Detroit Business “We are not concerned” about his departure. As a reporter noted, “Life without Bill Bonds isn’t expected to be much different from life with him at Channel 7 – except calmer – said executives.”
How wrong that proved to be. Bonds’ departure from WXYZ paved the way to parity in the Detroit TV market. WDIV-TV, which had been nipping at WXYZ’s heels as a strong #2 station, thanks to consistent anchors and strong NBC lead-ins, did what would have been unthinkable just a decade earlier and frequently overtook WXYZ in the ratings in the coming years making it, as one consultant called it in the late ’90s, “the most competitive two station race in the country.” Although, when I started at WDIV in 1996, 18 months after Bonds left WXYZ, many of the WDIV newscasts were still arranged in what can only be described as “Beat Bonds” mode. It took another year or so to break those habits in news rundowns and react to changes WXYZ had made after he left.
Just two weeks after Bonds was fired, on January 23, 1995, the O.J. Simpson trial began. The “Trial of the Century” was essentially free ratings-grabbing content that helped teach local TV stations how to attract an newscast audience without any local reporting. That proved to be catnip for cost-cutting managers in Detroit and everywhere else.
At the same time, starting in earnest with the February ratings period, new Fox affiliate WJBK-TV (which had recently switched from CBS) was adding news in the morning and establishing itself at 10 p.m. It was capitalizing on underserved day parts for news. The longtime #3 news operation (one 1995 article described its ratings in key news times as “anemic”) was establishing a point of difference rather than just trying to compete head-to-head-to-head.
In July of 1995, workers at the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News went on strike. Without going into the gory details, it’s safe to write that the once-mighty newspapers were diminished by decreased circulation, hits on advertising and striking, experienced journalists who never returned.
The firing of the biggest TV audience draw the market has ever seen, the TV trial that helped form a “new normal,” the beginnings of three-way competition among TV outlets and the “game changing” newspaper strike all occurred within six months. Of course, the proliferation of the Internet (not to mention digital cable and satellite TV) had a greater impact on collective media than even this remarkable confluence of events. But that all happened over a much longer period of time. Much of what we see at work, in this market and others, is directly attributable to what happened in a fraction of 1995.
One additional note from the research for this piece. In February 1995, Crain’s Detroit Business reported that during the end of the Bonds Era at WXYZ-TV, a 30-second spot on the 11 p.m. news cost up to $3000 at both WXYZ and WDIV. In today’s dollars, according to two calculator websites, that’s $4670. A media buying professional tells me the most seen spent this year on a 30-second spot this year was just $1000. That, above all, explains the expansion into morning news, weekend morning news, late morning news, afternoon news, early evening news all, of course, with continuing budget cuts and restrictions. Like many businesses, TV stations have had to add volume to deliver mandated profits to their corporate owners.